On a chilly January night, a team of around 30 Cornellians sat around the Akwe:kon Great Room, scattered with markers, colored pencils and sheets of paper. Indigenous students from the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program and students and staff from Cornell Botanical Garden’s Learning by Leading program were bringing the idea of a healing garden to life.
The garden, which is located in the front of the North Campus residence hall Akwe:kon, aims to offer Indigenous students a place for healing and belonging. Akew:kon opened 32 years ago as the first university residence hall in America that specifically honors and celebrates Indigenous people, culture and heritage. In addition to providing housing, Akwe:kon hosts a plethora of events, programming and support for Cornell’s Indigenous community.
Over the course of an evening, students brainstormed and sketched ideas for different plants and arrangements, hoping to create a space of comfort and recognition. The first goal for the garden was to heal, as they hoped to accomplish via a plethora of medicinal plants. The second was to honor Daniela Lee ’22, a member of Mohawk and Tarahumara tribes, who died in April 2022 and was an active part of the AIISP community.
“[The first discussion] felt so full, and the energy was wonderful and intense so joyful,” said Kristine Boys, lead horticulturist and native plant specialist for the garden.
After the first night of planning, the team from the Learning by Leading program took the inspiration sketches and turned them into a slideshow, presenting a palette of different native plants they felt would grow well. From there, the students picked the plants they wanted to use for the medicinal garden, and the botanical garden staff harvested seeds and saplings from plants on their own site. The process from start to finish took just a few months, according to Boys.
When early spring came, the team loaded up their trucks with tools, plants and most importantly, enthusiasm. Although earlier than a traditional planting would be, the cool spring morning meant fertile, moist soil which welcomed the variety of medicinal seedlings such as tobacco.
Over three hours, the team worked together in the soil to bring the garden to life. The plants were arranged in a circular pattern, designed to mimic a traditional medicinal healing wheel.
“The circle has so much power in traditional beliefs and symbolizes how hope and wholeness is restorative and reciprocal,” Yanenowi Logan ’24, member of the Seneca tribe, told the Cornell Chronicle.
One of the most unique features of this project was the collaboration between native and non-native students. The Learning by Leading program brings together motivated students to engage in community projects, fostering leadership skills and connecting them to the land. Working alongside Indigenous students on this project, the two groups were able to bring together their unique sets of knowledge and help each other, as Boys explained.
“The sustainable landscape team students put together these lovely hand drawn labels, with beautifully colored pencil drawings of each plant with a name,” Boys said. “This way, the Akwe:kon students could see their plant selections with the drawing and names next to it.”
Charlie Hernandez ’26, member of the Mixtec tribe, was one of the many Indigenous students on the committee who helped to bring this garden to life. His favorite part of the process was the actual planting, as he felt connected to the Earth and his peers. Stephen Henhawk, research associate with the AIISP, performed a traditional land blessing to help connect everyone with the land.
“Hearing Stephen Henhawk bless the land, and then everyone coming together and putting their hands in the soil,” Hernandez said, “it was a really fun appreciation of the Gayogohó:nǫˀ way of planting and learning about the cultural aspects of how to plant on native land.”
The garden was finished by early May, and Hernandez, who lived in the Akwe:kon house last year with a view of the garden, remembered feeling grateful to have it.
“There’s a need for healing .. and a place where Native students can have their own space where they could go in to feel safe,” Hernandez said.
Cornell, which is located on traditional Gayogohó:nǫˀ land, states in its land acknowledgement that it has a long history of working to support the Indigenous community, while acknowledging the painful parts as well.
Not only will the garden continue to be a place of healing, but Hernandez mentioned that the process of creating the garden provided a chance for him to give back to the native community, healing himself and helping others in the process.
On Sept. 2, this coming Saturday, the group will be coming back together to tend the garden and ensure its wellbeing.
“[Students] are going to continue to work together, and pass the garden on through the years,” Boys said.